Vermin, faulty!


It is quite right that professional nasty gobshite, Katie Hopkins has been roundly criticised for her vile article about sinking boats full of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. The use of dehumanising language to describe the people on the boats, like cockroaches, has a long and inglorious history, most infamously and disastrously realised in the Nazis’ view of the Jews and other “untermenschen”.

However, it surprises me that this approach is not taken properly and more generally. Dehumanising people is bad in itself. If you believe in human rights at all, they are not something that can be selectively applied or disapplied by counting some people as sub-human. Even if you do bad things or are a bad person, you remain a person, not vermin, and others who share a common label with you, whether they be African migrants or Jews don’t become subhuman because what you have done is bad.

So, it rather surprises me that even today, among people who agree that Hopkins was awful for the views she vomited out in the Sun, it is perfectly acceptable to continue to describe at least a third of one’s fellow Britons as “lower than vermin”. Indeed, so acceptable that the Guardian actually sells T-shirts with this slogan on it.

What I am referring to is the following quote, routinely repeated nearly 70 years later from Nye Bevan on the eve of the founding of the NHS:

“That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”

Considering that the speech was made only 3 years after the end of WWII when the true horror of dehumanisation should still have been fresh in the experience of most people, it can’t be claimed that this was a mere rhetorical flourish, no more than Hopkins can be excused for merely using “colourful” language. Of course, Bevan probably wasn’t arguing for a final solution for the Tory problem, but if dehumanising is bad in itself, the purposes it is used for can never be lofty enough to justify it. 

My modest proposal is that if anyone believes, as Ed Miliband says, “Britain can do Better than this”, they need to start with accepting that those who disagree with their plans are not evil and are not lower than vermin. Is that OK?

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3 thoughts on “Vermin, faulty!

  1. For once, I think you are a bit off-beam.

    It’s entirely wrong to generalise based on gender, age, race, nationality and so on. That’s just the way you are and doesn’t reflect on you, although obviously there may be demographic trends.

    Surely however, so long as we are not entirely prescriptive, we are entitled to make generalisations about behaviours and beliefs. These are, in the main, the choice of the individual.

    If I were to say “all paedophiles are scum”, I wouldn’t get much opposition. Their behaviour has demonstrated a level of amorality and lack of empathy that is unacceptable to all, and even though there may be many paedophiles who got that way because of mental health and upbringing issues, we are not minded to commute the statement to “most paedophiles are scum”.

    While Bevan’s hyperbolic fury at the ruling classes that refused to accept the principle that everyone is entitled to a decent life may have been excessive, I can understand his passion and I would still defend his right to say it. Having been born into a society in which that principle is axiomatic, it’s difficult for me to imagine the time when it didn’t exist – so it’s also difficult to understand how infuriated he probably was.

    • There’s a difference between strong criticism of a policy (or policies) or a particular form of antisocial or deeply immoral behaviour and branding all who share it as subhuman. Even an utterly terrible human is a human, even one who’d deny rights to others that they’d then wish to be protected by. That there may well have been Jews who fitted the Nazi description doesn’t mean that they were right or even that it would have been better for them to have said “some Jews are like this”.

      You can condemn the contemptible without going to the extreme of claiming they are beneath being judged as people.

      In the specific context of Bevan’s speech it should be remembered that (contrary to subsequent mythologising) both Labour and the Tories promised a free at the point of use national health service and neither were proposing retaining the prewar status quo. Bevan himself was actually the chair of a Cottage Hospital prior to the war so could hardly say that it was an intrinsically evil institution for not being state owned.

      In any event, even if the now unimaginable depredations of early c20th Welsh mining life justified Bevan’s anger, it hardly does so for the glib repetition of the line today.

  2. Pingback: Too Shy Shy | botzarelli

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